As you wonderful listeners have already heard (since you most certainly are tuning in to our podcasts), Ryan and I both like RPGs. While we both play each type, I tend to prefer RPGs of Japanese origin, and he fancies those of western birth. Whatever our preferences may be, we both benefit from recommending games to each other. Maybe you can too.
Here are some of my favorite JRPG’s in recent memory. I tried to avoid picking games from series that are already very well-known like Paper Mario, Fire Emblem, Tales of, and Demon’s/Dark Souls (It’s an RPG from Japan, Ryan. That’s the only condition it needs to meet). Also avoided were older games that everyone and their dog have already played, like Chrono Trigger, older FF games, Skies of Arcadia, that sort of stuff. And let’s face it, there’s a plethora of games I’ve never played that you probably have. Hopefully this list can spark some interest in those who are looking for a new game, people who’ve lost interest of become jaded with JRPG’s and their often-times formulaic structure, or maybe inspire you to tell me why I’m so wrong and game X is 100 times better than anything I said.
[Disclaimer: Xenoblade Chronicles not included since I have yet to play it, starting it soon. Golden Sun: TLA not included, although it’s one of my personal favorites, because it isn’t as interesting as some of the others. Harvest Moon 64 not included because want this to be less than 20 pages long]
First, some background. Yggdra Union comes from the Dept. Heaven series, a lesser known series developed by Sting. Each game takes place in the same Universe, but they can occur in any time/place/plane of existence within said Universe, so the connections between the entries are usually loose with a few easter eggs scattered here and there. Additionally, the gameplay mechanics for each entry are wildly different, each game creating a whole new experience (for better or for worse). Riviera leans more towards your traditional turn-based RPG with emphasis on item management, Knights in the Nightmare is a bullet-hell/RPG mash-up, and the upcoming Gungnir looks like an SRPG akin to Disgaea.
Yggdra Union is the second game in the series, and is the most unique strategy RPG I’ve played (for better!). The basics are all intact, select your units, move them on the map, engage the enemies, use tactics/strategy/brute force to win the battle. The hook comes from the ability to link your units as the goofy subtitle suggests (“We’ll Never Fight Alone!”). You and the enemy can only initiate one battle each turn, but each battle draws in more units based on the type of unit that is fighting. For example, a female Valkyrie engages a male bandit. The Valkyrie is joined by any unit within 2 spaces of her in a + pattern, the Valkyrie being the center, while the bandit receives a similar bonus with an X pattern. 1-on-1 battles can quickly become 5-on-5, and if you play your cards right (literally, since you pick a card to decide each turn’s movement and attack power), you can create some mismatches and dominate your opponent.
The gameplay is addicting, and as you go on it keeps adding little tweaks. The story holds its own as well. You start off as the titular princess Yggdra, looking to regain her conquered kingdom. It’s a typical good vs. evil affair, with the princess distributing her justice to the usurpers, but it twists that around halfway through the game as you find yourself on the warpath to other countries. Chalking up the horrors of war as “the Justice of the Holy Sword” doesn’t have the same effect on the conquered as it does as rallying cry for your army. It’s been done before, but it’s pulled of pretty nicely, so the story doesn’t detract from the stellar gameplay at all. If you’re looking for an interesting take on the SRPG genre, don’t hesitate to pick this up.
If you’ve played Super Smash Bros. Brawl then you’ve seen Lucas, that other psychic little boy character who is not Ness. Unfortunately, the Earthbound (aka Mother overseas) series’ is not as well-known elsewhere, save for a strong cult following. Nintendo never brought this entry over to English speaking territories, but lucky for us, a superb fan translation is available, so this gem can be played by the masses. One of the Mother series’ greatest strengths is its quirky and humorous writing, and the translators made sure that all of it was kept intact.
Onto the game part of the game, Mother 3 is a turn-based RPG with fairly standard combat. Magic is replaced by PSI powers for some, unique gear for others, and a combo system is integrated into your standard attack, where you press the button with the bass lines of the battle music to keep up a combo (there are many unique battle themes too, so it can be tricky to keep up with a new one). Lucas is joined by the princess Kumatora, the thief Duster, and his dog Boney, as they set out to find out what exactly is happening on their island.
Throughout his journey, Lucas’ family is torn apart, his twin brother Claus goes missing, and the world around him is heading on a strange new path, with suspicious characters pulling the strings behind the scenes. I won’t spoil much, as the story is this game’s strongest point, but Lucas’ progression from crybaby to a brave young man is quite well executed. The final confrontation especially so, it being one of the few times a game has brought me to tears. Anyone who’s a fan of the genre, or anyone who wants to see how videogames can weave a compelling story in their own unique fashion, should give this game a try.
I love the SMT series. The many different entries and spinoff series all have their own thing going for them while still keeping the overall feel. I’ve enjoyed Persona, Digital Devil Sage, Devil Summoner, you name it. But the third main SMT series entry, Nocturne, is unquestionably my favorite.
The apocalypse happens roughly 10 minutes into the game, and the main character is transformed into the demi-fiend, a part human part demon being. You start out extremely weak, with just a pixie as your demon companion (don’t get rid of her!), and the demons that have overrun the world have no problem reminding you. As you progress, you can recruit and fuse demons you encounter to fight for your party, learn moves from fighting with different magatama, and slowly begin to claw your way to the top of the food chain as you search for any clues as to the whereabouts of your friends from before the end of the world. The atmosphere for this game is amazing, and really makes it easy to get invested in the world. This is good, because you’re going to have a say in how the new world order will come about. And fortunately, it’s not just “all the way good or all the way bad” type of thing, but chooses to go the way of most SMT games. Choose from chaos, order, and neutral paths, each one offering some positive aspects. Of course, become strong enough to be recognized by the bigshot demons, and you might be able to just say “fuck it” and create your own order.
The battle system is a simple turn-based set up with a heavy emphasis on strategy. Striking the enemy’s weakness giving you bonus turns and buff/debuffs are practically necessary to survive. That back attack that occurred just before a save point? I hope you have an escape skill, because you might not make it through 2 rounds. The dungeons are even less friendly, with invisible walls and pitfalls, poison floors, warp mazes, and anything else you can think of that would piss you off. And bosses? Hope you confronted this boss on a full moon, as that’s the only way to beat him. Good luck figuring that out. But all these difficult, often frustrating things don’t bring the game down. The feeling of accomplishment gained from conquering that mid-boss, only to find that the real boss is waiting just ahead and reflects all elements and resists physical attacks, is unbeatable, especially when you survive that next fight by the skin of your teeth.
This game came out fairly recently in early 2011, but I never really heard it make many impressions. The Gamestop guy who sold it to me told me I was the only one who pre-ordered it. I hope other people got to experience this gameyou play as Stocke, an intelligence agent for his kingdom, as he investigates the plague endangering the land. If you’re tired of teenage JRPG protagonists whining about the weather and such, Stocke will be a nice change. He’s level-headed, cares for his friends, and is not afraid to get his hands dirty to achieve his goals (ala Yuri Lowell from Tales of Vesperia).
As the game progresses, Stocke finds himself in possession of the White Chronicle, allowing him to travel between timelines. Every big decision in the game creats a divergence in the time line, with somewhere around 300 points in the story to explore. These points range anywhere from optional sidequests, to pivotal moments in the plot, to dead ends that are impassable with your current skill or knowledge, requiring Stocke to travel to an alternate timeline to gather more intel. The game has its fair share of “bad ends”, where making the wrong choice leads to game over and returns you to the last checkpoint, but there’s enough variety in the divergence points to keep you returning to previous events to see how they play out differently.
The timeline travelling is definitely the game’s strong point, but the battle system is no slouch itself. Battles are fought on 2 3x3 grids (one for your party, one for the enemy) and various skills can be used to move the enemy to certain areas of the grid. This is to your advantage, as grouping up the enemies and attacking them at the same time leads to much quicker battles. Combos can be strung together by attacking in succession, with the ability to swap turns with allies or enemies allowing for longer barrages down the road. Certain characters can gain the ability to lay traps on the grid, push entire rows of enemies where they want, or attack multiple squares. It’s a unique system that allows for a lot of creativity in battle. Oh, and the soundtrack for this game is amazing, making even mundane encounters worth listening to. If you can find Radiant Historia, which hopefully will be easier now that it’s restocked, don’t miss this gem again.